There are two pretty common ways of approaching how people view their job and their identity.
There are those that just see their job as a means to an end. It might not light their passion but they are okay with that. What’s important to them is what they can do with the money gained from their work in order to fund a lifestyle.
Than there are those that need to connect with what they do. Regardless of the reward or salary, they do what they do because the love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Entrepreneurs lie in a funny little area of both. We know we must live and breathe what we do and create in order to find success, investment and growth. We also have an eye for the future but even more confusing is the fact our lives do become defined by our business. It’s an all immersive experience, one that you cannot achieve by half-hearted commitment.
Very quickly, the lines become blurred between what we are building and who we are. It’s the same reason I’ve found entrepreneurship the most interesting and beneficial self-discovery journey; the catalyst to the insight I have.
Being on Dragon’s Den gave me the opportunity to dig into this further. In just an hour, the dragons were able to separate myself from my business; something I am still trying to figure out. I pitched a business but they fell in love with me. Although not impressed by the company I came to the den with, all the investors took note of my drive, intellect and talent. That’s the funny thing about personality traits, they follow you no matter what you are doing.
Tomorrow I could wake up and decide to work in some pub pulling pints or even washing dishes but those traits would still help to define who I am. Next month, I might win the lottery (please please please!), buy an island and make it into a sanctuary for dogs. Still Lizzy though. Still the same flaws, insecurities, passion and weird habit of eating crackers in bed with my eyes closed as I fall asleep.
This is pretty easy to internalise. See yourself in your mind and then just change the background. Plop yourself into cities around the world, even outer space. Change has not been internal but rather situational. Another thing to realise is that we are pretty programmed beings. Chances are, unless you are a small child or teenager, you have very specific traits that will not change easily.
Where this gets tricky is when things like shame, pride, success and failure come in. You do a thing and that thing is perceived as either good or bad. For the sake of argument, let’s say everyone though that your thing was good, brilliant even. You are proud of your thing. You feel good.
In contrast, if everyone told you that your thing was terrible, you would feel bad most likely. You might even feel ashamed of the thing you made or that you failed in making a decent thing. These feelings (especially the negative ones) get internalised pretty goddamn fast. Confidence can quickly erode because of negative feedback towards what you made. We think it wasn’t the “thing” or idea that failed, it was you.
The reason we continue to attach our ego to our work, I believe, stems from what we are taught growing up. Before we have the time to discover who we are and therefore the standards which we measure ourselves by, we are taught to live by standards set by others; our parents, nursery and social norms. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, we need to learn how to become integrated within society. What I am saying is that we aren’t really ever taught how to break free from that as we develop and grow. We either pass or fail. We either win or lose. We either succeed or we fall short. We’re never taught the power of reflection, learning to understand where we went wrong and how to empower that experience into strength.
Type “Entrepreneurs, who you are is not your business” into Google and you don’t really get much back. It’s as though I didn’t type in the “not” for that search. All the articles thrown back at me are about the traits you must have to become an entrepreneur, furthering this idea that you are either born to build or you are just not cut out for it. Ingraining a sense that you are your business and you will become it.
So is it even possible to have focus, commitment and passion while also still honouring that you are a separate, eating, breathing, emotional being with basic needs?
It’s almost as though you are shamed into thinking you cannot be a successful start-up or entrepreneur if you are able to also find some kind of work/life balance or distance that enables you to take on different perspectives. Which would go a long way to explain why this doesn’t seem to be something that is often discussed within this space.
Even as I write this, the idea of an investor reading this and taking it as some kind of sign that I lack the grit and intent of throwing every aspect of my life into building a business worries me. And if it worries me then it must be part of the reason we aren’t willing to strike some kind of deal between the work we produce and who we see ourselves to be as a person.
I have come to realise that for me, external validation of some kind is important. This probably comes from the fact that I am a bit of people pleaser. Making others happy in turn makes me happy but this can also have some pretty drastic side effects. If even by mistake, I disappoint or anger others, I can feel pretty terrible. It’s almost as though I have a small identity crisis; like all of a sudden I’m not the person I thought I was.
I’m a passionate and intense person by nature. Attaching emotions to things that do not call for emotion is what I do. I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption (PS4 game) lately in a few spare hours over the weekend and probably take more time than the average player to feed and brush my horse. I haven’t changed horses since the beginning because I am now attached to a horse in a game.
I worry about what my dogs thinks of me, trying desperately to find the deeper meaning in why he wont come to bed with me on some idle weekday night.
Especially in tech and early stage start-ups, we quickly begin to understand that the first investment we will receive will most likely not because of our business idea but because an investor sees real potential in you, the ability to work with you and the leader you will become with guidance and time. It makes a lot of sense… if you don’t have any turnover but need cash to build the thing that will give you turnover, getting someone to buy into your idea, into you, is really important.
This can lead to a lot of pressure in how you present yourself. And whether we want to admit it or not, this bleeds into our identity and how we view ourselves. How we view ourselves often quickly becomes intertwined with how others view us. And since how the consumer, investor or employee views the business is pretty darn important to achieving success, well… it’s a bit of an identity crisis waiting to happen.
So let’s talk about it.
As entrepreneurs, we already surround ourselves with those of similar mind set. We already have functions and networking events and slack channels that we use to support and inspire each other. We talk about it in whispers, only able to feel relief after we discover that someone else feels it too but still too conscious of the eyes that might be watching to own our weakness.
Humility is a trait of strong leaders. The type of leader’s employees want to work for and investors want to fund. Being humble and acknowledging the error of your ways is also a great way to build trust and credibility. Humility needs to be balanced with a sense of confidence. If not balanced, you can undermine the team’s belief in you and in the business. Humility must be genuine as when leaders genuinely acknowledge mistakes or deficits in an area, it inspires others to discover their own confidence to act, take risks and evaluate their own challenges.
This leads to genuine improvement and self-development that will have ripples within the business. Remember, it always starts with you.